In no more than two hours, you, me, anyone can size up the auto industry with a leisurely stroll through Cobo Hall. This is why Detroit is the world's most important car show.
It helps that the officially titled North American International Auto Show is the first big auto show each year, and has been for a quarter century. Being first means Detroit sets the table for the year ahead, and being in the United States, there is a more relaxed cultural feel here. In Europe and Asia, car company bosses are treated like princes, popes and potentates. In Detroit, they are just well-paid executives in nice suits.
Then there's this: because Cobo is a relatively small venue – if you have a good arm, you can almost throw a baseball from one end to the other – the physical limitations put real and metaphorical margins on big global companies with a penchant for excess.
Most of all, the car business snaps to life here in January, just after a holiday stretch and make no mistake, there is plenty of life in this game. The proof is in the products.
Ford, the F-Series pickup company, stunned the media on Monday with a new GT super sports car. Fifty metres away, Acura did the same with the all-new NSX, another super sports car, though this one with plenty of electrification at its core. When this business is touting raucous performance, it's feeling very good about itself.
In the bowels of Cobo, in room 114 A/B, Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, in a natty bespoke brown suit set off by shiny loafers, is prowling about, microphone in hand, engaging in an unscripted give-and-take with a handful of journalists. This year, 2015, is not going to be an easy year, he says; it's going to be very competitive and the important markets of Russia, Japan and Brazil are going to have a tough time.But overall, the market will grow between 1 and 2 per cent. Globally, 85 million people will buy a new car or light truck this year, 16-17 million of them Americans, another 1.8 or more million Canadians.
One very clear message out of Detroit is that a growing car business is actually becoming the truck business. Audi's Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe are perfect examples. They're tall, functional rigs that handle well and ride quietly, but also have lots of cabin room and are easy to enter and exit. As Ford of Canada president Dianne Craig noted, small SUV sales are exploding and "it's coming right out of C-car (small car) sales."
Ghosn has moved to a discussion of the three over-arching trends that will dictate what the industry does and builds over the next decade or longer. First, emissions, or the government regulations governing them. Oil prices might remain volatile for years, what you pay at the pump may go up and down, but one thing is a certainty: governments around the world will continue to tighten the screws on emissions. This means the vehicles you're going to see will be lighter and lighter, more efficient and in many cases electrified in some way.Second, autonomous cars. The industry is moving quickly to equip new models with technology that allows drivers to disengage from the hands-on operation of their vehicles. And finally, connectivity. "The car is becoming a lab," he says. "The question for us is, what are we going to offer the consumer? Because we can offer many [technological] things."
Indeed, the Mercedes-Benz F015 concept is a perfect example. First shown last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it's a vision of the autonomous car that will become more commonplace within a decade or less.
But more technology "does not mean more boring cars," Ghosn emphasizes. The industry will continue to offer cars that really are technological marvels, but they will also be fun, sexy and inspire passionate responses in buyers.
Perhaps the most perfect example of this is NSX, a mid-engine hybrid supercar with a shockingly low stance, tight lines and technology that Acura accurately says "challenges conventional beliefs about [the] supercar;" an all-new power unit comprised of a twin-turbocharged 75-degree DOHC V-6 engine with a 9-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) and a three-electric motor Sport Hybrid system housed in an "ultra-rigid and lightweight multi-material body." Stunning.
How important is Detroit? Honda, a very Japanese car company, chose the Motor City in the heart of the U.S. to unveil an NSX that truly speaks to the best of what this industry plans to do going forward in 2015 and beyond.
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